Lawrence Jarvik’s 1981 documentary poses a harrowing thesis: did Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House intentionally refuse to provide any assistance whatsoever to the Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe? Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer in this film, as Jarvik harvests a surplus of contradictory opinions and statements from Jewish leaders, former State Department officials, Congressional figures and Holocaust survivors.
The result is a “Rashomon” effect, with some people claiming Roosevelt did nothing, while others claim Roosevelt was stymied by an isolationist Congress, and others insist American Jewish leaders intentionally blocked federal input on the issue.
History has shown that the United States was not the only country to deny access to Jewish emigrants from pre-war Europe. In fact, open door policies were relatively limited in that era: the film cites Great Britain’s offering asylum to Jewish children, but not their parents, while unlikely destinations such as China and the Dominican Republic were able to absorb those trying to escape Europe (strangely, no mention is made of the well-documented Dutch or Danish efforts to accept Jews escaping from Nazi Germany).
To his credit, Jarvik unearths remarkable rare newsreel footage of that tragic period, such as the first film of the devastated Warsaw Ghetto (which was smuggled out of Poland in the middle of the war).
But ultimately, he cannot keep control of the subject and the film literally talks itself into circles without ever reaching anything resembling a definitive history. With fingers pointed in every possible direction, the film reaches the conclusion that the disaster was ultimately someone else’s fault.
It also doesn’t help that Jarvik shot his interviews in a grimy black-and-white that gives the film a miserably monotonous visual presence. This film is one of the worst looking movies ever put on a screen.